Crash Course

What is YOUR Favorite Method of Live Fire Cooking?

Steve Nestor on the Grill

It gives me great pleasure to introduce another guest blog by our grill wrangler Steve Nestor. You’ll remember Steve from behind the scenes of my Project Fire TV show. This month he tackles a topic of, er, burning interest: the five methods of live-fire cooking.

In particular, he does something more. Having cooked his way through each method many times, he actually tells you his favorite of the five methods. And why.

Not that you have to choose, but if you did, Steve’s thoughts will be most welcome.

What’s YOUR favorite grilling method? Tell us below in the comments or share with us on Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, or Instagram!

If you are reading this blog, or have watched Steven Raichlen’s TV shows or attended Barbecue University™, you probably already know the 5 methods of live-fire cooking. Each has its advantages and limitations. In this blog, I’ll share my favorite method and explain why with some of my favorite dishes.

If you are new to live-fire cooking the 5 methods include direct grilling, indirect grilling, smoking, spit-roasting (rotisserie grilling), and caveman grilling (grilling in the embers). If you want more detail on each of the methods, check out Steven’s blog “5 Methods of Live-Fire Cooking”.

Each method has its advantages and is best for specific foods, but don’t be rigid with your thinking. Using a different method can utterly change the texture and flavor of a dish. For example, have you ever tried cooking ribs on the rotisserie? Do you remember Steven’s direct grill of paper-thin brisket slices—a decided departure from low and slow smoking?

You don’t have to pick one method for all your cooking, but by the time you finish reading this, see if you can decide what your favorite or “go-to” method is. I will rank my selections from 1 to 5, 1 being my favorite. Here we go!

5 Methods of Live Fire Cooking

1. Indirect Grilling

Indirect grilling transformed how I cook outdoors. It allowed me to be more creative and inspired me to try new recipes. The biggest reason I love indirect grilling is that I do not have to stand over the food the entire time it cooks. It allows you to entertain family or friends while food cooks. If you think of indirect grilling as an outdoor oven, the possibilities are endless.

One of my favorite appetizers to indirect grill is chicken wings. They are crispy, smoky, and juicy. Add a few wood chips or chunks to the fire, and you get the best of grilling and smoking (a technique appropriately called smoke-roasting). Planked salmon, chicken thighs, pork tenderloin, and beets are some of my favorites for indirect grilling. Check out the blog for my Smoke-Roasted Beet Salad. Even desserts benefit from indirect grilling. Check out this apple-cranberry crisp below on the kettle grill or Steven’s Salt Slab Chocolate Brownie S’mores.

Apple Cranberry Crisp grilling indrectly


2. Direct Grilling

Direct grilling comes in second in the ranking. It’s the method people are most familiar with. It’s commonly performed on a gas grill since most people own gas grills. Direct grilling can be performed over a charcoal or a wood fire. Steaks, seafood, and veggies come to mind for direct grilling. A cool technique is starting wood chunks in a chimney starter to create a wood fire.

The wood fire adds another level of flavor to things like steaks, swordfish, and veggies. Check out these wood-fired lobster tails below. Grilled asparagus or broccolini served with a grilled lemon squeezed on top are great side dishes. Pizza on the grill or over a wood fire is delicious. If you are looking for more wood-fired recipes check out Episode 1, Season 2 of Project Fire. When you just want a burger or a hotdog at a backyard cookout, direct grilling is the way to go.

Direct grilling lobster


3. Spit-Roasting (Rotisserie Grilling)

Spit-roasting (rotisserie grilling) comes in third. I had limited experience with spit-roasting but decided to branch out. I didn’t ease into this method. I went all in and put a 5-bone prime rib on the rotisserie of my kettle grill for Christmas dinner years ago. I did not have a back-up plan. Thanks to my success with the prime rib, I now utilize this method for whole chickens, ribs (yes, ribs), whole pineapples, and pork loins. Onions, peppers, potatoes, and even chicken wings can be cooked in a rotisserie basket. Rotisserie attachments are available for gas and charcoal grills. 

Prime Rib on the Rotisserie


4. Smoking

It doesn’t get any better than a whole packer brisket or pork shoulder smoked for hours and hours, but most of us are not eating smoked foods daily. A recent trend in barbecue is pellet smokers. They allow you to “set it and forget it,” and some can even be controlled with your smart phone. If you own a pellet smoker and are looking for new recipes, check out Nancy Loseke’s new book. One of my favorites is to cold smoke salmon to put on a bagel with all the fixings. picture Foods that can be smoked, but aren’t as sexy as whole brisket include nuts, salts, and eggs. One of coolest things I’ve seen Steven do is smoke ice cream.

Cold Smoked Salmon


5. Caveman Grilling (Grilling in the Embers)

Cavemanning (grilling in the embers) takes last place just because I have had the least amount of experience with this technique. The one recipe I love to make with this technique is Ember-Roasted Salsa. All the ingredients are put right on the hot coals, cooled, and mixed in a food processor. Serve it with homemade tortillas…it’s a crowd favorite. I guess I’m not brave enough yet to grill a steak in the embers.

Cavemanning vegetables


Bonus Method.

One of favorites methods is a combination of roasting and smoking. You hang a whole beef tenderloin in the Pit Barrel Cooker (PBC). The meat hangs over the fire. The meat juices drip back down on the coals and create smoke. I also mix in some wood chips to increase the smoke flavor. What I like is that one end cooks more than the other so you can feed guests with different requests for doneness (medium, medium-rare). You can also flip the tenderloin for an even cook. It isn’t necessary, but spraying the tenderloin with red wine as it cooks takes it to another level!

Pit Barrel Cooker

The frequency with which I utilize a method, the food I cook, the grills I own, how easy a method is to use, the occasion, and the people I’m cooking for all influenced my rankings. I also realized I use my kettle grill a lot. Maybe the next blog we can discuss what your is your favorite grill, smoker or cooker?

So, can you pick your favorite method? Luckily, we don’t have to choose, we can use them all to create delicious meals for our family and friends.